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Everything I Know About Lean (Well Almost Everything), I Learned From Improving My Laundry Process... - GoLeanSixSigma.com


Karyn’s story: I’m Karyn Ross, author of the forthcoming book How to Coach for Creativity and Service Excellence: A Lean Coaching Workbook, and co-author of Shingo-Award-winning The Toyota Way to Service Excellence. People often ask me how I learned Lean. They’re usually surprised to find out (and you may be too) that one of the best ways I learned wasn’t by working on a business process…it was through improving my family’s weekly laundry process! “Why your laundry process? How did you do it?” And “What did you learn?” are usually the next questions I get, so let me tell you the story…and I’m going to ask my friend and very first Lean teacher and coach, Leslie Henckler, to give me a hand!

In 2010, I was working for a payroll company in frontline customer service. I took care of 300 customers and wanted to find ways to serve them better and make the work for customer service reps easier. I heard the word Kaizen floating around my office in Chicago, did some research, read some books and started working on improving processes in the branch. I had some successes, and learned a lot about some great tools, but didn’t quite know how to put it all together…until, that is, I met Leslie…

Leslie’s story: I’m Leslie Henckler! In 2010, after learning Lean in manufacturing and front and back office processes from fabulous teachers such as Shingijutsu and Pascal Dennis, I was leading Lean transformation efforts in the head office of the same payroll company where Karyn was working. Although our offices were half-way across the country from each other, I heard about the Lean work Karyn was doing in her branch, reached out to her, and asked how I could help!

Karyn’s story: That’s how my laundry process improvement got started! One of the things I wanted to learn was how to use Standard Work Combination Sheets. I’d read about them, but wasn’t sure how they applied in services…and I was worried that I didn’t have a ‘machine process’ in my daily work…so I asked Leslie if she had ideas about what to do…

Leslie’s story: A couple of things I’ve learned over time are 1. ‘Learning-by-doing’ is the best way to ensure people are capable and confident…and 2. There’s never any reason to wait to ‘try something out’. There’s always a process that needs improving! Sometimes you just need to get creative! So, I asked Karyn, “What process do you have that has a machine?” A couple of days later, Karyn called and said…

Karyn’s story: “Leslie! I’ve got it! I’m going to improve my laundry process! It’s got a machine – two of them in fact — a washer and a dryer — and the laundry process is making me crazy! I start the laundry early Saturday morning…and on Sunday night, while everyone else is having fun watching TV, I’m folding and putting the laundry away! What I really want is to start the laundry Saturday morning when I wake up at 7:00 am, and be done by 9:30 am when Brian, my husband, wakes up! And I don’t want my work clothes to be wrinkled I’m tired of having cat fur stuck to them! I do the laundry every weekend, so I can send you an update every Monday morning! Then we can plan the next steps for me to take during the week!”

Leslie’s story: So that’s what we did. Every Monday morning, Karyn faxed me observations and data she collected from her weekend ‘laundry process experiment’. She mapped and timed the current state, made a spaghetti diagram of the circuitous walking route up and down the stairs in her house, and collected data on what what types of clothing she was washing for each member of the family. Each week, after I reviewed her work, we’d have a coaching call to discuss learning and make a plan for next week’s experiment!

Karyn’s story: Yes, Leslie, that’s exactly how it worked! I even got to practice making Standard Work Combination Sheets of putting the clothes in the washer and dryer! A funny thing happened when I sent those to Leslie! Of course, like most things we’ve never done before, my first attempt at filling them out was wrong!!! Really wrong!! So Leslie re-did them and sent them back to me. When we had our coaching call, I could compare the two! Suddenly, Leslie said, “I’ve got to go!” and hung up!!! When she called me back a few minutes later, she said, “My boss, a Vice President, came into my office and I had to explain to him why I was talking about someone’s laundry!”

Leslie’s story: That was funny! But I want to make sure people reading this article don’t miss the important thing you just shared. As the learner, you did the Standard Work Combination Sheets incorrectly, and I corrected you through coaching. Right? Then do you remember what I did?

Karyn’s story: Of course! You made me do them over again!! And we repeated the process until I could do them correctly — and confidently — on my own!

Leslie’s story: That’s right. Coaching someone means correcting them so that they learn to do things correctly. Sometimes people worry that if we correct someone, we’ll make them feel bad. But helping them until they can do it correctly is the way to make sure they will feel great in the end!

Karyn’s story: Absolutely! That was one of the greatest things I ‘learned-by-doing-with-a-coach’: We really have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes!

I’m happy to say, I also learned a lot of other things about improving a process end-to-end including root cause analysis. After truly understanding the current state and asking “why” many times, I found out that my laundry process took two days because of wait times caused by the different cycle-time lengths of the washer (35 min) and drier (one hour). So now, instead of sorting by color, I sort by weight, wash everything in cold water, and only wash the amount of clothes that can dry in 35 minutes! That way there’s no wait time between loads! (By the way, do you know why I was drying everything for an hour? Because that’s the way I’d learned to do it when I was 12 years old…and I’d done it that way ever since!)

I also learned that work clothes could be put in the drier and then hung up immediately so they didn’t get wrinkled or covered in cat fur from sitting in a laundry basket for two days!

Leslie’s story: Yes! Important things to learn by doing! Anything else you learned from improving your laundry process that you think would help our readers?

Karyn’s story: Yes. And these learnings are great for people who are new to process improvement like I was when I worked on my laundry process…and for those who have a lot of experience, because I think you’ll agree that they’re pretty universal and timeless:

  • Everything is a process, even if we don’t see it that way at first.
  • Start with the purpose — the ‘why’ — and then focus on customer needs.
  • Real learning, and the confidence that goes with it, happens when you ‘learn-by-doing-with-a-coach’
  • There’s always a way to learn — so stop telling yourself you don’t have a process to learn on — and start learning!
  • Improving home processes is a great way to learn because they’re accessible , improve your — and your family’s life — and they make make great teaching stories!

What do you think Leslie?

Leslie’s story: Totally agree! And you know what else? I think it’s time for a coffee and snack at the Bahama Bistro! How about it?!

Karyn’s story: Leslie, let’s go!

Karyn Ross

Karyn is the Shingo Award-winning coauthor of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations. Her business, Karyn Ross Consulting, was created to help businesses flourish, thrive and grow by focusing on service excellence. An internationally experienced consultant, coach and lean practitioner, she has taught organizations of all sizes in sectors as diverse as insurance, HR, transportation and retail how to use creativity combined with Toyota Way principles – a combination she calls, “Practical Creativity.” Karyn is also a practicing artist with an MFA in Sculpture.

Leslie Henckler

Leslie is the Director of Process Improvement & Business Efficiency for TriNet — a provider of Human Resource services like payroll, benefits and technology. Leslie creates and implements Lean processes that help colleagues maximize service quality for TriNet clients. She has spent 10 years within the Human Resources industry developing and executing process improvement strategy at the enterprise level. She also spent 12 years directing the Lean initiative for Kodak and has consulted on service excellence for Lean processes. She is a certified Six Sigma Black Belt and is also certified by Shingijutsu Gemba Kaizen.